The Camry Killer Verses the Competition
I did a comparison some months back between three distinct cars: The Honda Accord Sport, Ford Focus Titanium and Chevrolet Sonic RS. At the time of my comparison I considered all three cars to be the best offerings amongst their respective rivals. Even further back I did a comparison amongst midsize family sedans and at the time I didn’t include the Malibu in the rankings because I had only driven one and it wasn’t the top trim LTZ model. Since that time I’ve driven several LTZ models and I’ve also tested out more Kia Optima models as well. My comparison follows:
8) Toyota Camry XLE and SE: The McDonald’s of Midsize Sedans
Pros: Resale Value, Reliability, Room
Cons: Styling, Cheap Interior Design and Materials, Feature Content
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. The Toyota Camry is everything I used to hate about midsize sedans. Back when I bought my very first new car (2004) I only considered Nissan, Honda and Toyota offerings because at the time the Domestic automakers were lagging behind in refinement, features and reliability. Styling was never a strong suit for Toyota or Honda but you couldn’t touch their resale values and reliability. I ended up purchasing a 2005 Altima simply because I loved the styling considered most Nissans to be reliable (they were until Carlos Ghosn took over) but after about four years of shoddy reliability, I dropped the Altima for a pre-owned 2007 Honda Accord EX-L. Like the Camry, the Accord I purchased was no beauty queen but it offered everything I wanted at the time (leather sunroof, 5spd manual transmisison) so I overlooked its frumpy styling. Today, most every car built is reliable, all of them offer a vast array of content and many competitors offer “sexy” styling to draw you in as well. Obviously Toyota (and Honda and Nissan to some extent) still haven’t gotten the message.
Don’t get me wrong I understand why the Camry is the best seller, its got a reputation for reliability, quality and resale value spanning at least three decades but its become clear to me that Toyota is living off that reputation. Shoddy interior build quality, a mix of both bland and ugly styling elements, interior plastics and trim pieces that rival 1990s GM quality, mismatched colors, materials and paint schemes on the dashboards and door panels. Tri-colored upholstery on the seats that look like afterthoughts. Some of the lowest levels of feature content in the class (no memory seats on XLE models, 30K Camry SE models with no dual-zone climate control) and an infotainment system that’s easy to operate but outdated next to even the system used in the Mazda6. Right now Toyota has some of the lowest ATP numbers in this class and is offering some of the highest incentives. It is very easy to see why.
Driving around in the Camry only makes me hate it more. Power from the 2.5 is merely adequate, ditto fuel economy. For the most part the 2.5 is a refined base engine and the 3.5 is the Camry saving grace, but that's about it. Sure the V6 power is linear, and its got a nice exhaust note, yet even in the Camry SE V6, the car still comes off as a mix of too many compromises. Handling is average, ride quality isn’t terrible but its not the kind of car I’d like to take on a twisty road. A 24K Accord Sport with a CVT is honestly more fun to toss around. Steering in the Camry is super-light and lifeless. SE models also crash over bumps while XLE models feel too Buick-like for my taste.
Interior volume is very good compared to other cars in this class mainly because the Camry’s boxy profile affords it more headroom than the swoopier profiles of most of the competition. However, no amount of room will make up for the Camry’s uninspiring and bland interior and cheap interior materials. Storage space is also adequate but much better than cars like the Mazda6, Malibu and Ford Fusion.
As bad as the Camry's interior is, I find the exterior to be even worse. Sharp creases, fang-like fog light cut outs and an unfinished rear give the Camry a styling mix between the previous generation (which was quite handsome in SE trim) and the 2002-2006 models, by far the ugliest Camry of all time. How Toyota managed to downgrade the Camry's styling is beyond me, but they did. I guess removing features like LED taillamps could be part of the reasoning. The new Camry looks like a cheap Chinese version of the previous generation. A real shame.
Bottom line, the Camry is the car in this class I would avoid. It does nothing exceptionally well, it has no standout feature content, it’s the ugliest car in the class and it has the worst interior in the class by far. I’d plunk money down on a Chrysler 200 before I’d ever by this generation. Toyota should have done as Honda did with the Civic, went back to the drawing board and revised the Camry. As it stands right now the Camry is living off its reputation and has fallen behind all major competitors in the class. Being the best seller obviously does not mean you are the best and thus the Camry is the McDonald’s amongst midsize sedans, certainly not the best, but the cheapest and easily the most attainable.
7) Chevrolet Malibu LTZ: The Camry Killer
Pros: MyLink Infotainment, Smooth Ride Quality, Nice Interior Styling
Cons: Cramped Interior Volume, Too Expensive, Bland Styling
I had a thing for the previous generation Malibu and its first cousin the Saturn Aura. As a matter of fact a good friend of mine used to sell Saturns and when I bought my 2007 Honda Accord back in 2010 I seriously considered buying a pre-owned Saturn Aura. Everything about both the Malibu and Aura seemed upscale compared to the Pontiac G6 and other previous GM midsize cars. The only thing that kept me from buying either was the lack of interior technology. The new Malibu rectifies that problem handily but the luxurious styling of the older Malibus and Auras has disappeared with this new Malibu.
I distinctly remember Bob Lutz going on and on about how much effort GM put into the styling of the previous generation Malibu, how it ranked so high among focus groups and how GM specifically spec’d out Malibu models with oversize wheels to give the car a more upscale appearance. LTZ models offered 18 inch wheels, pretty big at the time for a midsize sedan. Styling on the Malibu was long, low and elegant. Aura had a high rump but even it managed to look really good even in base XE trims with wheel covers. Today’s Malibu simply does not have that styling magic. It looks like a mix of Japanese and old GM styling. To get decent alloy wheels you’ve got to step up to the 2LT models and even then the 18s available seem too small for the tall, humped over styling. The shorter wheelbase doesn’t help matters either as the car looks like a beached whale unless you get the 19 inch wheels which are only available on a 33K LTZ 2.0t. The standard alloy alloy wheels on the LS, 1LT and Eco models are pathetic. GM just spent major money updated the Malibu’s front end styling and yet they didn’t even touch the rear end of the car, the area where most of the complaints derive. It also looks like the bland alloy wheel choices are here to stay as well. A real shame. I don’t mind the LTZ’s rear LED tail-lamps, they actually look upscale and are much better looking than the cheap LEDs used on the previous generation Malibu LTZ but the tail lamps on lesser Malibu trim levels look cheap and uninspiring.
Inside the Malibu most materials are top notch. I actually like the overall design and find it to be much more upscale than the previous Malibu or the Aura. MyLink is very easy to use and integrates well with my smartphone. Graphics are clearly defined and the blue tooth works well. The interior controls have a tactile feel to them and are within easy reach, the leather upholstery is of decent quality but not nearly as nice as the duds inside the new Mazda6. Issues with the Malibu interior? Well, while most of the materials are very good, some of them still scream ole GM. Plastic around the driver’s seat power controls was flimsy and coming apart in every Malibu I’ve driven. Secondary controls (moonroof, exterior lighting, traction/stability controls) all felt really cheap and brittle and of course the Malibu has the most cramped interior of all the cars I tested, even if the official measurements don’t bare it out. It would also do Chevy some good to offer softer rear seats as the rear bench literally feels like a park bench. Storage space is also lacking since the Malibu has the smallest center console of all the cars I tested.
Driving the Malibu is a slight step above the Camry. The 2.5 provides decent power and the 2.0t has enough thrust to get you around town when you need it, but like the Camry the Malibu merely achieves average fuel economy. Handling is not a Malibu strong-suit and considering the Malibu is going after the Camry’s side of the competition, it really doesn’t have to be. Ride quality is very good though, Malibu feels like a cruiser next to most of the competition. Bumps are easily absorbed and the ride is always smooth even in 2.0t LTZ models with 19 inch wheels.
I find the Malibu’s pricing scheme to be downright appalling. I drove two distinct LTZ models, one 33K 2.5 LTZ and 35K 2.0t LTZ. There was not one stand out feature offered in the Malibu that I couldn’t get in other cars in the class for less money. As a matter of fact for the price of a loaded 2LT Malibu I could get into a fully loaded Honda Accord EX-L that would have just as much content if not more than the Malibu LTZ. GM really should work on the trim levels offered on the Malibu and cut the MSRP on the cars by at least 2 grand. Take a page from Hyundai and Kia: When you are the underdog you don’t price your product at a premium against the competition. That never works, especially if your product isn’t an outright standout against said competition.
It is apparent that GM had its sights on the Camry when redesigning the Malibu and for the most part it gets the job done. The problem for GM (and Toyota) is that the Camry is only the benchmark from a sales perspective. Since about 2010 every redesigned midsizer has been better than even the Camry. The competition has moved on from styling, features ,handling and performance and the Camry has merely stood still. Perhaps next time GM should mimic the true benchmark of the midsize sedan category, the Accord. Until then GM will continue to have a product that is truly better than the Camry but that is simply not up to snuff against the rest of the competition. And try as it might, the updated 2014 Malibu will not have enough "updates" to warrant a real move on the radar of potential buyers in the midsize class. Back to the drawing board GM!
6) Volkswagen Passat SE and SEL: The German Camry
Pros: Germanic Feel, Interior Volume
Cons: Outdated Styling, Cheap & Dated Interior Design, Lack of Content, High Pricing, Terrible MPG
I wish GM had paid more attention to the Passat. Afterall, it was VW who most recently tried to build a Camry-killer with this new Passat and as we’ve seen the Passat hasn’t made nearly as much sales progress in this class as most of the offerings, including the Malibu itself. The press has been mighty kind to the Passat, often too kind in my view. The Passat offers mediocre styling inside and out, average interior materials, no real advantage in feature content and the worst fuel economy of all the cars I drove. Handling is pretty good overall mainly because of the Germanic steering but the Passat comes across as a mixture of Camry and ole Impala style-wise and I simply don’t like it. The exterior styling wouldn’t be so bad if the car had better wheel choices and better exterior lighting options. I was upset by the Camry’s lack of HIDs and and LEDs until I realized that the Passat was the only car in the group that still had halogen headlamps. The previous projector beams and available HID and LED lighting on Passats are no more. Where is the Pizzazz?
Interior room is downright limo-like. The Passat’s bland, boxy styling nets a car that offers best in class rear-leg room. Its a shame that all that room is let down by an interior design that looks more outdated than even the 1998 Passat.Many may recall that the 1998 Passat was the benchmark midsizer...in 1999. Gone are the soft-touch and upscale interior materials that set the Passat apart, gone also are the neat interior features and content that older Passats once possessed. Today’s Passat is merely mediocre from a material standpoint and behind the times from a styling standpoint. For some the conservative looks inside and out may work. I beg to differ. The car leaves me feeling cold and its content are dated.
For all the dislike I have for the Passat’s styling, its a decent driver. The 2.5L I5 engine is no powerhouse but it gets the job done adequately. The Passat’s steering is heavy, Germanic and gives good feedback overall. The car is much better than the Camry and Malibu and is very much Accord-like in this regard. V6 and TDI models have more power and the V6 in particular is smooth as silk. Ride quality is good as well, again offering a combo similar to the Accord in that its never too harsh and never overly sporty but it can be athletic when it needs to be. Still fuel economy for all but the TDI is worst in class compared to the others and the 2.5 is unrefined overall and no match for the Accord, 6 or even Optima base engines.
While this new Passat may be less upscale than the previous models, it still falls on the high-end of the class price wise compared to the competition. A loaded Passat SEL with the 2.5L engine is right at 33K loaded yet it lacks so much equipment compared to all of the competition that its pathetic. SE models represent a decent value price-wise but they too are also behind most comparable competing models. VW really should update the Passat, its pretty much the oldest midsizer of this group and its shows. New 1.8t engines are on the way for 2014 and they cant get here fast enough. Fuel economy will improve by 3 MPG or so, which will still leave the Passat midpack mileage wise. The 1.8t simply will not be enough to move the Passat up the needle for me. The car needs extensive styling and content updates to really compete. Most of the mechanicals are solid but VW has to realize that the American market is not simply about cheap transportation anymore so trying to offer us a decontented Passat at premium pricing is simply not going to cut it.
5) Nissan Altima 2.5SL: The Former Athlete
Pros: Excellent Interior Materials, Outstanding Fuel Economy, Abundant I4 power
Cons: Low Content Levels, Unrefined Engines, Bland Styling
How I used to love the Nissan Altima. I was always a fan of the old Maximas, I really wanted one back in 1999 when the all-new 2000 Nissan Maxima debuted. I was in my first years of high school and I just had to have one. Then in 2001 when the Altima made its debut my love for the Max dwindled and by the time I graduated high school my mother brought me a brand new Altima. I loved that car. The styling was nice and since mine was a 2005 model I got the updated exterior and vastly improved interior. Altimas back then were fast, sporty and sexy. The last two generations however have become softies.
Let’s talk styling. After two generations of evolutionary styling, Nissan decides to play it safe with the Altima for another generation. Smallish wheels, random and overwrought curves and creases render the Altima somewhere in the middle style-wise. It’s not as bland as the Malibu or Camry but its no match for Optima, Fusion or Mazda6. The Altima is just kinda there in most respects. Not a standout in any way really.
The Altima’s interior does have some of the softest materials in the class but its understated interior design would have you thinking otherwise. Nice color schemes, soft dash tops and tactile feeling buttons make the Altima feel upscale compared to the frumpy Camry and boring Passat. Door panels have soft padding and nice stitching and the leather is right up there with the Mazda6 for best in class. The interior design feels outdated though, a problem for every generation of the Altima . It would do Nissan some good to become more creative with the interior design because every other aspect inside is quite nice. Feature content is lacking and is almost as bad as the Camry. No memory seats are offered, rear headrest don’t adjust on models without leather and no power passenger seat is offered. Top trim 3.5SL models cost nearly 33K so the omission of these features is an issue to me. Interior room is decent, better than the Malibu, 6 and Fusion but not nearly as good as the Camry or Accord.
Still, the Altima is a decent drive, even with its rough and gruff engines. The CVT isn’t as refined as the new Accords but it’s got ample power when you need it and excellent fuel economy when you don’t. Handling is good overall but the Camry-lite steering would have you believe otherwise. It feels artificial and vague at high speeds but ironically feels heavy and weighty at low speed.
Over the years Nissan has found lots of success with the Altima. Sales are at an all-time high and it ranks amongst the top sellers in this class. Yet the Altima is always the invisible car in this class. When car mags mention the midsize benchmarks, the Altima often gets overlooked by the Fusion, Sonata, Camry and Accord, yet the Altima is the third best seller in its class Nissan execs are quick to note how the media seems to give the Altima no real praise, yet they fail to realize how mediocre the Altima really is. The Altima has the potential to be so much more if Nissan (and Carlos Ghosn) would stop chasing profit, volume and fleet sales and actually built a world class car that stood out against the competition. As it stands right now excellent fuel economy and very nice interior materials aren’t enough and thus the Altima remains the most invisible midsize sedan.
4) Ford Fusion SE 1.6t: The Schizophrenic
Pros: Exterior Styling, Athletic Handling, Rich Interior Materials, Hoot to Drive in Manual Form.
Cons: Expensive Pricing, Mismatched Content Levels, Overhyped and Underperforming Ecoboost Engines
The Fusion has so much potential, I’ve driven just about every trim level, driven every gasoline engine choice and even sampled the unicorn 1.6t 6spd manual. In manual transmission form the Fusion is so good I’d be willing to overlook its flaws and make it my number one choice (I’ve got a manual comparison test coming after this one) but with the 1.6t or 2.0t with automatic, Fusion is merely a midpack finisher with a pretty face.
Fusion styling still looks good to me but it varies based on the trim level and based on the wheel choices. High trim Titaniums and SE models with 18 inch wheels look very good, SE models on 17s and the dreadful S models on 16s look rental car-spec. The front-end of the Fusion is love it or hate it. I just happen to love it. It looks bold and sporty next to everything in this class besides the Optima and 6. The side profile gives me an Audi A7 vibe and it especially looks good with the optional rear spoiler a add-on I typically do not like on my cars. The rear end’s LEDs are a nice touch as well, Titanium models take it a step further with the halo rear LEDs that activate anytime the car is running. One area of contention for me with the Fusion is the lack of upgraded exterior lighting. The 35K Fusion Titanium I drove lacked LED headlamps and HID headlights, a real omission in this class of cars.
Inside the Fusion most materials are top-notch and the design is understated yet very nicely designed. Besides the complicated MyFordTouch system, most controls are easy to operate and feel tactile to the touch. I do wish the Fusion had a more adventurous interior design but given the demographics of this class of buyer the current design works well. Interior volume is better than average but rear headroom and rear visibility could be better. Interior storage is also lacking in most areas but deep map pockets in both the doors and inside the lower inward sections of the center console are nice touches. Feature content is hit and miss in the Fusion. All SE models should have push button start as standard equipment considering other cars in this class offer that feature. Yet the Fusion SE didn’t offer the feature for 2013 and limits it to the automatic transmission models for 2014. I suppose I should be grateful that Ford offers the Fusion at all in manual transmission form. Fusion does offer memory seats and even a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled seats and a wireless charging device for 2014 but all of these features are optional and drive up the pricing of the Fusion to levels 2-3K higher than the competition, but as I mentioned, in manual transmission for, the Fusion is almost worth it.
Speaking of transmissions (and engines) let’s get onto what I dislike about the new Fusion: The ecoboost engines mated with the automatic transmissions. Ford has recently admitted that its hybrids can’t achieve the EPA ratings, they also need to be honest and admit the ecoboost engines don’t meet those ratings either. Power output from both the 1.6t and 2.0t is lacking compared to naturally aspired I4 and V6 models offered by the competition. The Fusion simply feels outclassed and out powered. Real-world fuel economy is also not a strong suit for the Fusion with ecoboost technology. Every car comparison so far as found the Fusion to be midpack at best next to the competition. My short extended drives were not enough to determine fuel economy but based on acceleration alone, it would do Ford some good to go back to the drawing board. I’ll see how I feel about the new 1.5t once it hits lots later this year.
Handling in the Fusion is excellent. Mazda gets all the credit for being the sports car of the group, yet I feel more connected to the Fusion in the twisties and on the onramp (when I drove the manual model) Steering is weighty even at high speeds and feedback is direct and precise. Fusion feels like a modern day Contour and gives my old 2007 Accord a real run for its money steering wise. Ride quality is also excellent, a rare combo in this class today. There is no real trade off in quality or overall steering performance.
Bottom line is I really like the Fusion. It’s like that really cute and popular guy or girl that you liked in high school who seemed to have it all together on the surface. The one who always got all the attention, looks and stares but always seemed to be lacking in other areas. Ford did an awesome job on the styling, handling and performance of the model which will sell the very least. Yet where it counts, where the meat and potatoes of the market for the Fusion is, Ford has been less than successful. The ecoboost engines need work, feature content needs sorting out and pricing is too expensive for what you get. MFT at best is glitchy and the lack of Pandora is questionable. Thank God I happen to be one of those few folks left who enjoys the manual transmission because among the midsize sedans that still do offer stick shifts, the Fusion is my top choice. With the automatics though, Fusion falls just short of top dawg status in my view. A real shame for a car with such a pretty face.
3) Mazda6 I GT: The Beauty Queen
Pros: Sexy Styling, Excellent Interior Materials, Sporty Moves, High Content Levels
Cons: Terrible Infotainment System, Low, Cramped Interior Room
I like Mazdas, always have but I’ve never really considered buying one. The first generation Mazda6 was a very nice car that offered everything I wanted in a midsizer. I simply couldn’t stand its cramped and cheap feeling interior. Generation 2 was nicer materials-wise and even offered a I4/6mt GT model in early years but it too, never really registered on my radar after about the first year of production. This new generation has styling so bold and so sexy that I cannot help but to be intrigued all over again. Bold, swoopy curves, a fastback roofline and gorgeous 19 inch alloy wheels give the Mazda6 an elegant, sporty and sexy appearance. The 6 (and Optima and Fusion) are the anti-Camry’s of the bunch. LED DRLs up front and elegant LED rear taillights add just the right elements to the 6 to give it a distinctive look without being overwrought.
Inside the Mazda6 utilizes excellent interior materials, soft and subtle leather upholstery (I love the Almond leather) and high levels of feature content. Interior styling is excellent with the exception of the tiny 5 inch Mazda infotainment screen. The new Mazda3 will offer a 7 inch screen and the Mazda6 needs it ASAP. The infotainment system is about the worst system in its class, that honor goes to the EnTune System Toyota uses. Graphics look ancient, the screen is too damn small and the Tom-Tom system has graphics that give my old Playstation a run for its money. For everything Mazda did right with the interior of this car, they failed miserably on the infotainment side of things.
Storage capacity is also lacking: armrests, consoles and cubbies are all undersized compared to most of the competition. Ditto interior volume, the 6 sits low and thus rides low. Its a sporty feeling car for most people and I like it but its easy to see how some buyers might be turned off by the low seating position and lack of rear headroom and visibility. I also personally hate the 6’s automatic shifter area. The zig-zag shifter pattern and 1990’s shift knob look outdated. Ironically 6’s with the E-Loop fuel economy package get a totally different shifter design and layout that’s much more upscale and luxurious looking.
Driving the 6 makes up for most of the infotainment flaws though. Its a fun car to drive, its 185 hp engine gives the 6 above average acceleration and the 6 offers fuel economy that rivals the Altima without the nagging drone of the CVT. Handling is excellent and second only the Fusion in my view, ride quality is pretty good but suffers a bit with the 18 inch alloy wheels. Steering is precise, weighty and always provides excellent feedback.
Pricing is also reasonable. I was actually surprised to note that the Mazda6 with all its content is actually less expensive than a loaded Altima 2.5SL and is within a few hundred bucks of the Accord EX-L. Slightly under 31k, the Fully loaded GT model offers everything including navigaiton, pandora, power moonroof, leather and memory seats. Not bad for a car that looks like it could cost $50,000. Mazda fatal flaw for me though is the infotainment system. As sexy as the car is and as much as I like it overall, I just could not live with that infotainment system on a daily basis. Thankfully I hear Mazda will be upgrading the system within a model year or so. I will be glad when they do.
2) Honda Accord EX-L/EX-LV6: The Benchmark
Pros: All Camry Virtues plus, Excellent Ride/Handling Trade off, Feature Content, Pricing
Cons: Conservative Styling, Some Cheap Interior Materials
Toyota and Honda always get ragged on for being the best selling cars in this class. I can understand the Camry hate and up until 2013 or so I could understand why folks hate on the Accord. For 2013 the Accord is worthy of all the praise it gets because it really is a stellar choice in this class. I’d probably already have a 2013 now if Honda still offered the Accord in EX-L trim with a manual transmission. My 2007 has been flawless in every way and the 2013 builds on the attributes of my generation while avoiding the lackluster qualities of the previous generation.
The Accord has never been a beauty queen. In fact in some generations its been kind of ugly. I’ve never loved the styling of my 2007 Accord, in fact the styling of the 2003-2005 model is the reason I ended up buying an Altima in the first place. The 2013 models tries to be somewhat distinctive though, especially the Sport models, which almost look sexy. Styling is evolutionary compared to the previous years but this new Accord is smaller, lower, wider and more aggressive than before. Available LED DRLs and LED headlights give the Accord a distinct yet elegant look, 18 inch wheels on Sport (and Canadian Touring models) give the Accord an upscale appearance. The 17s standard on the EX models are downright ugly though. It would do Honda a world of good to expand the Sport trim because as it stands, the Sport is basically a base LX with an appearance pkg and it looks more expensive than the 33K Accord Touring V6 I recently sampled. Rear LED taillights on EX-L and up models are also a nice touch. Conservative to be sure, but the Accord still looks much better and more cohesive than the Camry, Altima and Malibu.
Inside the Accord offers space rivaling the Camry and VW Passat. Interior materials for the most part are above average but the Accord suffers from its share of cheap plastics and inelegant design. The door panels are particularly a sore spot in my view. They look and feel cheap. Obvious cost cutting can be seen in areas if you look closely. One example being the deletion of lower interior door puddle lamps. Honda eliminated this feature for 2013 yet left the cut outs for the lights in the door panels. My grandmother’s 1991 Accord even had this feature. The interior design is easy to use and the dual screen set-up works efficiently but the whole design just seems forced and inelegant. I do love the top screen, which is 8 inches. HondaLink, Pandora and Bluetooth integration work seamlessly and the top screens graphics are easy to figure out and large enough for even the blindest bat to see. Interior storage is among the best in the class, even if its a step down from the previous generation in that regard. Leather upholstery is really good and the perforated pattern is a nice design. Feature content is abundant in the Accord as well, especially for the price. Memory seats (but not mirrors), leather, sunroof, navigation, lane departure warning and other nannies are all standard for under $31K rendering the Accord less expensive than Malibu, Fusion, 6 and Altima with similar equipment.
Driving the Accord, even with the CVT feels natural. Sure its not as athletic as the Fusion, Mazda6 or the Optima but it can be sporty when it needs to be. Handling is good all around, steering is a little light, but firms up when you need it. The Accord can still take the curves when it needs to and does so without fuss compared to the Camry and Malibu. The ride is firm but not so harsh to a point where the car feels rough, wind noise is still there somewhat but I’m used to it in my 07 model and compared to mine, the new Accord is coffin quiet.
The bottom line is simple: The Accord is still the benchmark for most buyers, it offers the room, reliability and resale value that only the Camry can match, yet it can be sporty when it needs to be (Sport trim) offers more content that most others and does so at a price that is often less than others as well. It’s styling may not be flashy and some of its materials could be better but overall the Accord is still the car in this class to get, but its just not the one for me. Now, if Honda builds me an Accord EX-L with 18 inch wheels from the Sport and the slick shifting 6spd manual on LX, EX and Sport models, RL would be the first in line to buy it. They offer a model close to this in Canada but for some reason they refuse to sell it in the United States. A shame really.
1) Kia Optima EX and SX: The Underdog
Pros: Sharp Exterior Styling, Feature Content Galore, Good Handling and Power
Cons: Some Cheap Interior Materials, Questionable Resale Value
When I bought my 2005 Altima I didn’t even consider Hyundai, much less Kia as competition. Fast forward nearly 10 years and now the Optima would be my choice amongst midsize sedans with automatic transmissions. Why do you ask? Value, styling and feature content.
I purposely exempted the Sonata from my comparison test because in my view the Optima renders the Sonata useless. Optima’s styling, content, handling and price all outclass the Sonata in my view. My favorite car in this class from a styling perspective is the Mazda6, a really close second is the Kia Optima, especially the Optima SX.
It’s a sexy car: HIDs, LEDs, sharp 18 inch wheels, bold, taunt styling and nice chrome accents make the Optima standout. Falling somewhere between $28.5k-$32k fully loaded, the Optima is also an awesome value. Panoramic roof, power folding outside mirrors, sharp 17 or 18 inch alloy wheels, heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats are all standout features in the Optima. Having a price tag that’s less than most of the competition also helps the Optima in my view.
Inside the Optima has above average materials, falling somewhere between the Altima (the best IMO) and the Accord (midpack) in my view. Most materials are soft touch with my one sore spot being the matte plastic surrounding the audio/climate controls. This area looks scratch-tastic and cheap as hell. Interior storage is again average, better than Malibu but not as good as Camry, Accord or Passat. Rear legroom and headroom are better than I expected them to be considering the Optima’s fastback roofline but rear visibility does suffer greatly. Better utilize the rear view camera on Navigation models. UVO is easy to operate but feels a bit dated compared to Chevy’s and Honda’s systems but it gets the job done much better than Mazda and others.
Optima’s athletic styling isn’t dampened much by its ride and handling. For once Kia finally built a car that provides some real good driving enjoyment. I’ve been automatic transmission-adverse for years but the Kia Optima’s 2.0t engine with its paddle shifters is quite fun to drive. It moves pretty good too. Compared to the 2.0t in the Fusion and Malibu, the Optima SX feels faster, is more fun than the Malibu and gets pretty good MPG numbers, still like other turbo fours its no real match for the v6 from a horsepower perspective. Steering is heavy, sometimes a little too heavy and it stays firm when power increases. Handling is sharp and almost european-like. The upscale gauge cluster and throaty growl of the turbo engine add to the fun driving experience as well. It really is a remarkable and impressive car.
The only real downsides to the Optima (its infotainment and some cheap interior materials) will be address next month when the updated 2014 Optima goes on sale. Optima will offer even more content (lane departure and other nannies) upgraded audio/infotainment and revised interior materials and design and that will make the Optima an even better choice in this class. As it stands right now, no car can touch the Optimas content, and pricing which are incredible for what you get and very few can touch it’s styling. The car is a bargain and offers attractive styling, features and content for an excellent price. It’s my top choice amongst this class of sedans.